We all know variety is the spice of life, but according to new research from New York University, it’s also the spark of happiness. The study found that visiting new places and enjoying diverse experiences on a daily basis is linked to increased levels of happiness and elevated brain activity.
We’re all creatures of habit to some extent, and there’s something inexplicably comforting about knowing exactly how your day is going to go, but these findings suggest that penchant for familiarity is somewhat of a behavioral pitfall. Our brains are at their best when we’re on the go and experiencing new stimuli.
On a more actionable level, the research team says they’ve uncovered for the first time a connection between one’s everyday physical environments and feelings of wellbeing. So, even if you don’t want to go rock climbing or deep-sea diving every other day, simply visiting a new coffee shop, library, or local park should be enough to spark some good feelings.
Of course, these suggestions aren’t as easy to implement these days due to COVID-19; millions are still primarily confined to their homes due to lockdown measures. For so many of us, the past two months have been a monotonous blur.
Everyone’s mental health has been put to the test, and this study is yet another example of how trying this viral ordeal has been. Still, even under lockdown, there are actions anyone can take to change things up. If you usually spend your time working in your living room, switch over to the kitchen or another room every other day. If you spent all day Monday on the computer or watching television, try to do something else on Tuesday (books, hobbies, etc). Finally, while far away travel is pretty difficult these days, there are always new parks, areas, or trails to explore close to home while still practicing social distancing. Something as simple as taking a new route to the grocery store can do the trick.
“Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines–when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” explains Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s co-authors, in a university release. “The opposite is also likely true: positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently.”
This is the first time a study on humans has drawn these conclusions, but research on animals has indicated a similar relationship between diversity and happiness.
“Collectively, these findings show the beneficial consequences of environmental enrichment across species, demonstrating a connection between real-world exposure to fresh and varied experiences and increases in positive emotions,” says co-author Aaron Heller, an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s Department of Psychology.
For this research, a group of study participants living in New York or Miami was fitted with GPS tracking devices for three to four months. During that period, subjects were periodically sent text messages asking about their overall wellbeing, emotional state, etc.
On days when participants visited more locations and spent a decent amount of time in each place, they always reported feeling better. Words used by participants on these days included “happy,” “relaxed,” “excited,” “strong,” and “attentive.”
With these preliminary findings in hand, the study’s authors wanted to see if these happy feelings were linked to increased brain activity and functioning. To that end, they asked half of the participants to come in for MRI scans.
The MRI results were very telling. Participants who reported the greatest feelings of happiness on especially diverse days showed a more prominent correlation between neural activity in the hippocampus and striatum. This is especially noteworthy considering that the hippocampus is associated with the processing of novel experiences and rewards, and the striatum has been linked to positive experiences.
“These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being,” professor Hartley concludes.
We’re all a little different. Some people seek out new experiences from the moment they open their eyes each morning and others avoid interrupting their routine as much as possible. Even if you’re naturally averse to switching things up, these findings make a pretty strong case that we should all step out of our comfort zones every once in a while. Our brains crave new experiences.
The full study can be found here, published in Nature Neuroscience.